The Art of Foley

A documentary's quest for authenticity often dictates that only location sounds accompany footage. However, when used judiciously, Foley can add to the realism of a film rather than detract from it.
June 1, 2001

Toronto-based freelance Foley artist Steve Hammond worked on producer Shelley Saywell’s film Legacy of Terror: The Bombing of Air India, which won a Gemini last year (the Canadian equivalent of an Emmy) for best sound in an information/doc series. ‘Sound played a big part in the film,’ says Hammond. ‘It was very heavily sound designed.’ In one shot, several women perform a traditional East Indian dance. Hammond enhanced the scene by adding the shimmering of bells, which made the sound of those worn around the ankles of the women performing more palpable. ‘We wanted to make the content more believable,’ he explains. ‘The bells brought their movements to life.’

Foley can also be used to create a certain mood or spotlight a particular character. For German pubcaster WDR’s doc No Mercy, Munich-based artist Joo Suerst used Foley to communicate isolation. Explains Suerst, ‘[An inmate] was sitting in his cell, reading a book, smoking a cigarette, standing up to wash his hands… In the original sound, you could hear children playing outside – it didn’t feel like he was alone. So, we took out the atmosphere sounds and just used Foley. We did the sounds very precisely and very close to the microphone. I gave the burning cigarette a noise and the pages of his book turning. With only these sounds, he became very lonesome.’

‘You can do this with other things too,’ he continues. ‘If you have many birds in a picture, but give Foley sounds to only one, people automatically focus on that bird. If you have three guys walking, but give only one guy good, clear footsteps, subconsciously we know this is the guy to watch. You can manipulate viewers’ attention.’

Generally, Foley is used for sound that originates from movement. If someone is getting into a car, the clip clop of feet approaching the door, the crunch of seat material, and the jangle of the car keys are all produced in the Foley studio. ‘Feet and the sounds people make when they move are the bread and butter of Foley,’ says Hammond.

The methods of Foley artists eschew the current trend towards all things digital. Suerst used the tongs of a fork against the radiators in his studio (Lab-pone) to create the squeak and rattle of a jail cell door opening

and closing. Hammond employed cornstarch to imply the shuffle of wolves fighting in hard tundra snow. By lowering the sound of air escaping a balloon, Suerst produced the trumpet of a woolly mammoth. Tanks of water, various floor surfaces and common household goods litter Foley studios designed to withstand the abuse artists impose on them. ‘Foley is a performance art,’ explains Hammond. ‘It’s customized sound, which is why Foley exists.’ This is one reason Hammond doesn’t keep a library of his sounds. ‘That’s when you stop being a Foley artist and become a special effects editor,’ he says.

Hammond works with various post-production facilities in Toronto, so he is reluctant to divulge his fees as quotes are calculated differently from one studio to another. However, he reveals that studios often cut deals and claims rates usually accommodate production budgets. Suerst charges DM900 (US$400) a day. The amount of time devoted to a project depends on the complexity of the work being performed. Foley artists traditionally get involved with a project after the final picture edit, but Suerst says this is changing. ‘Lately, the time schedule is very tight for post-production. I’m working on a project right now that’s still shooting. When they have one part done, I go and do the Foley. It’s very intense for the editors.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.